LAS VEGAS -- He has been fighting professionally less than five years, and has reigned as heavyweight champion exactly 12 months. But Riddick Bowe's manager already is comparing him to boxing legends Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali.
On the eve of Bowe's title rematch with Evander Holyfield at Caesars Palace, Rock Newman was turning up the heat.
"Joe Louis? He was a great fighter," Newman said. "But, at his best, Louis was about 200 pounds. How would he have done against a 6-foot-5, 240-pound champion?
"Ali was also at his fighting peak around 200 pounds," said Newman. "He had a good jab, but not the sledgehammer jab Riddick has, and, of course, Riddick is a much bigger puncher. In a few years, Bowe will be acknowledged as one of the greatest heavyweights of all time."
Whoa, Rock, says Bowe's trainer, Eddie Futch. A half-century ago in Detroit, Futch was a stablemate and occasional sparring partner of Louis'.
"To this day," said Futch, "I don't think there has been a heavyweight with the lightning knockout power of Louis. His right hand would travel only a few inches, but if he hit you flush, you were out cold.
"It's a bit premature to be comparing Bowe with Louis. He's still young  and approaching his physical peak, but the potential is definitely there."
Futch, who has tutored more than a dozen champions, including Joe Frazier and Ken Norton in their upsets of Ali, seldom showers his fighters with praise. But he concedes that Bowe has developed at a rapid pace since Futch, somewhat reluctantly, took Bowe under his wing after Bowe's loss to Lennox Lewis in the 1988 Olympics.
"At one time, Riddick wanted to knock everyone out with one punch. He was power-crazy," said Futch. "I had him working on counters, setting up big shots with little shots.
"If you go back to the Olympics, he survived strictly on a jab and hook. He always had the right hand, but he has really developed a potent left hook and uppercut. It was a short uppercut that staggered Holyfield in the 10th round, if you remember."
Bowe's boxing skills are no longer in question. Rather, the doubts about him focus on whether the champion is dedicated to his craft, or a classic story of a person from the slums spoiled by fame and wealth.
Bowe, a native of the same Brooklyn, N.Y., neighborhood that spawned Mike Tyson, is building a $7 million dream house in Fort Washington, Md., complete with a bowling alley and 16-car garage.
He was a target of ridicule when he ballooned to nearly 300 pounds after destroying journeyman Jesse Ferguson in two rounds at RFK Stadium last May. Even Bowe, who has scaled down to 245, can joke about it.
"When I'm home and not training, there's always someone cooking," he said. "My wife, Judy, feeds me, and then I'd run down to my momma's house to see what she had made for dinner.
"I was eating five meals a day -- barbecued ribs, chicken, rice, spinach. All topped off by a bowl of ice cream. You name it, I ate it," Bowe said, sounding like a young George Foreman.
But last month, he made a $10,000 wager with Newman over who would shed his excess bulk faster, and Bowe got down to a manageable weight after a few weeks in his Lake Tahoe training camp.
"Hey, when Primo Carnera was champion, he weighed about 270 and nobody said a thing," Bowe said. "My first fight with Holyfield, Iweighed 235, but I really depleted myself, not drinking or eating for a day or so. I'm very comfortable now fighting around 245."
When someone suggests he spends too much time impersonating Ali and trying to match wits with David Letterman and Arsenio Hall, Bowe says: "I'm not trying to be Muhammad Ali; I'm trying to be Riddick Bowe.
"During the Olympics, people said I was too playful. But they took it out of context. Even my wife says I play too much. Guys I went to high school with tell me I'm still the same. I really take things more seriously now. I'm as serious as a heart attack."
But Bowe apparently loves his status and the wealth and adulation that is bestowed upon the baddest dude in boxing.
"I like being champion and my place in life," he said. "And I'm capitalizing on a lot of mistakes past champions made.
"I've heard a lot of guys say that if they had a second chance, they'd do things differently and be more respectful of people. I'm trying to do that while I'm champion."
As an example, he recalled a conversation several years ago with Tyson, his friend from the 'hood.
"Mike told me that he got to the point that if a rat came out of the sewer, he figured that rat came to see him because he was champ. I can't ever see myself acting that way."
Bowe, who has earned more than $20 million after taxes, said he realizes he needs to overcome a challenge to convince the critics he belongs with the elite in heavyweight history.
"Ali had Frazier to bring out the best in him," he said. "I would have liked to have competed in the '70s when there were challengers like Norton, Earnie Shavers, Foreman and [Ron] Lyle. For me, a defining fight would be Tyson, if it ever happens."
In the meantime, Bowe says "money has been coming my way in truckloads."
Since becoming champion, he has signed endorsement contracts with Fila, Fruit of the Loom, Casio and Domino's Pizza.
"How many guys from the ghetto get to do that?" he said. "Sometimes, I feel just like Rocky Graziano when he said, 'Somebody up there likes me.' "